SILVIS, Illinois (July 10, 2011) - Was Steve Stricker's three-peat ever really in doubt?
But in the end the unofficial "nicest guy in golf" – and the world's fifth-ranked player - sank an unlikely 25-foot putt from the collar of the 18th green Sunday at TPC Deere Run to win his third consecutive John Deere Classic by one stroke over 23-year-old PGA TOUR rookie Kyle Stanley.
When the putt rolled in, the deafening roar of the crowd and Stricker's uncharacteristically Tiger-esque reaction indicated just how much his much-discussed quest for a three-peat meant both to him and to his many fans in the Quad Cities.
His 22-under par 258 defeated Stanley’s 21-under by the narrowest of margins.
After making two straight bogeys, the Wisconsin native and former Illini golfer birdied the 17th hole with a 15-foot putt to get to within one of the surging Stanley.
Still, all seemed lost when Stricker's tee shot on No. 18 landed in a bunker on the left side of the fairway, leaving him with an impossibly awkward stance, but setting up one of the more memorable shots in tournament history.
With the ball in the sand below his feet and 184 yards to the green, Stricker debated with his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, whether to use a 7-iron – the conservative play to the middle of the putting surface – or a 6-iron - to push the ball hole high. Stricker paced. And he watched as Stanley missed his 10-foot par putt on 18, meaning birdie could win it.
"Let's go for the birdie," Stricker said to Johnson.
Standing at the edge of the bunker his feet partially in the sand, Stricker hit an unbelievable right-to-left 6-iron from a slice lie that landed in the middle of the green and rolled just onto the back fringe hole high. Now, to force a playoff Stricker needed only get down in two, but the 44-year-old veteran of multiple Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups had other ideas.
The crowd fell silent as Stricker analyzed his putt from both sides of the hole, studied how the fringe might affect its line before it arrived at the green, and the calculated the myriad slopes and gravitational elements that could factor in to the putt.
Then he took his conventional stance and grip, drew back the blade of his trusty Odyssey putter, and drained the putt, sending the crowd into a three-peat frenzy. Stricker would take home the winner's check worth $810,000 along with a John Deere riding mower.
Meanwhile, as the top-five finisher not otherwise exempt for the British Open, Stanley punched his ticket to Royal St. George’s and later would join 20 other John Deere Classic and British Open contestants, including Stricker, on the tournament's direct charter flight to Kent, England.
Stanley's five birdies on the first six holes on the back nine Sunday enabled him to overtake Stricker, who made the turn with a five-shot lead and looked like the inevitable winner. Stricker's bogies on 15 and 16 gave Stanley the lead and Stanley's tee shot to the par 3 16th set him up for a reasonable birdie putt that would have extended his lead. Instead he did not convert.
The wheels started to come off on 17 when Stanley sliced his 3-wood tee shot into a hazard right and punched out of thick grass, leading to a par on a hole where winners usually make birdie – as Stricker did a few minutes later. Stanley's tee shot on No. 18 again faded right, this time into the trees, leading to the dreaded bogey that opened the door for Stricker’s final heroics.
In 2009, Stanley, a former Clemson star from Gig Harbor, Washington had received a sponsor exemption from JDC tournament director Clair Peterson. He tied for 34th and earned $22,100. Stanley’s memories of TPC Deere Run no doubt will be even sweeter when he cashes his second-place check for $486,000.
Stricker now has 11 PGA TOUR victories and joins an elite group of players who have won the same tournament three times consecutively, among them Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, and Tiger Woods.
Now, Stricker heads to Royal St. George's for a chance to crown his career with the one achievement that has so far eluded him: a major championship.
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